Author Archives: stefanhostetter

On Becoming An Adult

April 1st was a bit of a milestone for me, though it likely wasn’t obvious to anyone. I woke up, showered, skipped breakfast and hopped on my bike for the incredibly short ride to work. The elevators don’t become fully operational until 9am, but work starts at 8:30 so I need to exit out the rear elevator doors and swing around to enter the Centre for Social Innovation lounge and greet my team for the day. Outwardly, it will be like every other day I’ve had for the past three months here, but something will be different.

On April 1st, at age 26, I qualify as an adult for the first time.

This of course is based on highly scientific criteria that I created in my mind years ago as to what makes an adult.

  • You own alcohol you do not drink. (Bonus points if you have some sort of hutch where you keep it).
  • You have a dental plan.

I’ve fostered this theory for years, waiting to finally shout my achievement from the rooftops and as I left the unopened bottle of red wine and assortment of random liquor sitting on my counter and headed to work on the fateful Wednesday, I had made it. I started my first consistent full-time job in January and my dental plan kicks in after three months, unknowingly anointing me as a fully- fledged adult. But to be honest, for those of you who haven’t hit this stage in your life yet, it doesn’t feel that different.

Is it handy to have something on hand to offer an unexpected guest upon their arrival? Of course. Is it great to know that if half of my teeth fall out of my mouth I’ll only have to personally cover some of the expenses? Yes, definitely. But despite the years of thought, discussion and refinement that has gone into this anointment, it will pass with little fan fair, for one main reason.

  • It’s bullshit.

As a child, we have all of these perceptions of adulthood and what it consists of. We see these ‘grown-ups’ doing grown-up things and build our perception around the things we see them doing. Adults have fulltime jobs. Adults do their taxes. Adulthood becomes about doing things and therefore we come into our formative years with the belief that once we do these things we’ll feel this magical transition and suddenly it will be upon us.

But then it doesn’t happen and you start hear voices rise up stating that their biggest surprise was that no one knows what they are doing. You begin to see the world as the patchwork of people just like you, and it’s incredibly frightening. You realize that what makes an adult has nothing to do with what the person is doing but rather why they are doing it.

Adulthood is nothing more, and nothing less than reacting to responsibility. I’ve spent the last three years trying to find my way after graduating university, slowly building myself into some semblance of what I thought I saw as a child when I looked up. And I’ve made progress. But the secret that‘s only a secret because it never really soaks in is that even if you have dental, and alcohol you don’t drink, you’re still able to be fucking terrified in the face of something you don’t feel prepared for. Which is a problem, because life is going to keep giving you the responsibility to do these things and the only way to be prepared for something is to do it.

In an adult life you’re scared again and again and slowly, if you’re lucky, you learn to feel this fear, listen to its concerns and carry on. Knowing at the very least, that if life punches you in the teeth, you’re an adult.

Which means you have dental.

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , ,

on saying yes

EDITOR’S NOTE: This post is the 2nd in a series, intended as a space for the various authors and contributors of Embracing Ambiguity to reflect on the past year in each of their lives. 2014 has been a tumultuous year for each writer, from transitions and changes in the physical spaces they live in, to the internal turmoil of life changing decisions.  Each post follows the general prompt of thinking back to where we stood one year prior, and the head space we were in at the time; reflecting on what has brought us to where we are now and the change that has occurred in that 365 days of time. Happy reading and an ambiguous 2015 to you!


A year ago, I lay on my back staring at the ceiling of my old apartment feeling totally lost. About a month before that I had found myself pacing for days through my apartment, a 6 foot ball of anxiety. I had interviewed for a job, while scaling up a few projects, and found myself on the precipice of a new life, terrified.

I was scared that I would get the job and therefore not have time for all of these new things I was doing. I was scared that I wouldn’t get the job and simply wouldn’t have money for useful things like food or rent or Netflix. I decided that if I didn’t get the job, I would give up looking, commit to these other projects and find a way to make it work. And in 2014 that’s exactly what I did.

Today, I sit legs outstretched staring at the wall of my new apartment, just beginning to allow myself to feel a sense of place. A few weeks ago I found myself living a flashback of 2013. I had interviewed for a job, while scaling up a few projects, and found myself on the precipice of a new life, oddly calm.

I went back and read last years review to fully appreciate where I sat then and found documentation of just how lost I had felt. I began 2014 with almost no attachments, and to borrow the metaphor I used then, just the urge to chase a few subway cars to see how long their platforms could be. As I paced, waiting to hear how I would begin my 2015, I tried to understand what I had done this year to change my outlook.

The simple answer it seems, is that I lived it. I made less money in 2014 than I had since I left home for university, but it never felt like hardship. I was lucky enough to find small contracts through a number of sources to get me through each month. And to have some savings to drain when I needed a bit extra for whatever reason, which helped with the anxiety of starting each month unsure about where income to pay that months rent cheque might come from.

If January 2015 started the same way that December 2014 did, I would have completed the final piece of the slow build of consistent projects to reach my goal of earning $1000 a month. The figure I had deemed as enough to sustain my life on. This fact alone could be said to be enough of a reason for my shift from terror to calm in the wake of an incoming job prospect, but I don’t think it tells all, or actually even that much, of the story itself.

If anything, what changed was how I saw myself and how I understood the nature of work. In 2014, I began to see employment not only as something you can go out and find, but also as something you can build given the right opportunities. I spent the year saying yes to nearly every request made of me, rarely knowing if it would end with me being paid for anything. Often it results in a bunch of work and not much else, leading to a friend stating that ‘Stefan works for free’. But in the end, it proved to be a surprisingly effective tactic if your goal was to only get by.

Saying yes to improv classes lead to working on a set with Chris Hadfield.

Saying yes to running environmental networking events lead to bringing five buses of Torontonians to the Peoples Climate March in NYC.

Saying yes to a writing club lead to story telling events that now cherish.

Saying yes to making a last second video lead to what may well be the Green Majority’s big break.

Saying yes to work showed me that I could create value in this world and gave me the opportunity to prove it to others. There are thousands of people, places, and communities that make up the reasons why 2014 ended up the way it did. Hundreds of privileges that I took into the year, some small, some huge, that made it all possible.

But I’ll remember 2014 as the year I said yes, started walking, and didn’t look back.

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , ,

On people

EDITORS NOTE: This blog post is the third in a series, intended to celebrate Embracing Ambiguity reaching the 50 post milestone. If you haven’t already, you should definitely scroll down to see the first post by Jeff. Embracing Ambiguity recently received an email response to a post that asked a lot of great and challenging questions. In celebration of Embracing Ambiguity’s milestone, various authors will be responding to these questions over the next week. In general, the theme is (roughly) “making the decisions that will IMPACT EVERYTHING”, and  “the narratives we tell ourselves about what we’re doing, why and how we feel about it”. It is left to each author to choose how closely they reference / stick to these original prompts. We’re excited to see what they come up with. If you like what you read, share it on Facebook and Twitter and help #EmbAmb increase it’s reach. Happy reading.

—–

This story takes place in many places.

It takes place on the streets of Brooklyn, as I am sprinting down a sidewalk I’d never before been. It takes place in a back alley, as I frantically try to clean. It takes place on the bar stool, as disco lights and billiard balls flash behind me. It takes place on the perfect blue chair, as I sit, listening to a story.

It takes place on the third floor of my office building, as I sip wine to a slow realization.

But due to the usefulness of following some form of chronological order I shall start with the chair.

I’m at home, a few weeks out. I swivel slowly on a chair left here by my sister. It’s blue, feels a little like corduroy, and is possibly the most comfortable thing you’ll ever sit on. I’m listening to a few friends tell stories we had written, and I am suddenly hit with a feeling that I can’t quite place.

I’m on the third floor of the building, in meeting room three. It’s still a mess, shirts scattered, paper still stuck to the desks, large now empty cardboard boxes sit to the side of the room. My plan was always to do this, and really, it was for the most part working. But I hadn’t truly anticipated the scope, and there were holes. I’d already patched a few thanks to the help of enterprising participants watching the doors and guiding people, but the biggest was out on the cement of the back alley. I trapped someone in the room with the promise I’d return and near sprinted to find that my anxiety was for nothing. They had done everything already, I could return to the mess. That night, as I sat sleeplessly staring out the bus window, I came back to the feeling I’d had on the chair.

I’m on the twelfth floor of a commercial complex in Koreatown, Manhattan. I sip my just larger than a shot glass of apple-sour soju. The laser based lighting system, and thumping pop music colour what would otherwise be a relatively expensive billiards club. I’m with four friends, three of whom I’ve been friends with for over six years and none of whom I’ve seen five times this year. But that doesn’t matter.

I’m on Felton Avenue, Brooklyn, demanding if my phone can see someone who’s running like a fucking maniac. Shortly before this moment, I had sworn at him. Shortly before that I had took off, away from the buses that had now become the ticking clock to something I just didn’t want to believe I would have to deal with. He could have been stubborn, he could have taken offense to my tone, but when he heard the panic in my voice when I told my phone that it needed to run, he ran. As we sit side by side in silence, the rain pattering against the bus windows, I think of how rare this relationship is.

I’m on an old zebra pattern chair in an office well above my pay grade. I pick the wine off the carpet to poor myself a second glass of the cheapest red the closest store sells. I’ve come here for practice after a day of working from home. I had arrived unsettled but as conversation flowed I sat back, and thought of advice a friend had once relayed to me: “Find the things in that make the world make sense”.

And I found myself, disagreeing.

For me at least, there was nothing I could do that would make the world make sense.

Rather, I had found the people that made the world make sense. If I had accomplished nothing else, I had done this, and I realized then and there, that I think this would be enough. I would never be making a choice that would impact everything. I could never have a failure too great. I could never be so wrong that I couldn’t be right again.

During the march, between the laser billiards and Brooklyn sprints, there were four men in costume and a sign.

“Butterflies against the end of the world”.

Tagged , , , , , , , , ,

On lettuce

If you asked me last year, or even last week, if I thought I would ever find myself contemplating eating an entire head of plain lettuce I’m quite certain my answer would be no.

In fact, if you had asked me to make three statements of things I knew for sure about my life I believe they would be in order: I will get married, I will have a fulfilling job and I will never eat an entire head of plain lettuce.

I mean I don’t even really buy lettuce, and regardless salads are pretty easy. So why would I ever do this? If you had asked me then, I would have said I wouldn’t.

Just in the same way I know that I will get married. I love people, I’m good at relationships, it’s shown itself to be the case that at least some people can love me. So eventually those stars will align. That is pretty obvious I feel.

The bottom line is that lettuce just isn’t enough by itself. And it is only once you find yourself staring at the pile of chopped lettuce on your cutting board that you think…maybe. I mean, what other options are there? I didn’t plan for this, I just sort of stumbled into it and now it’s here and I don’t know what to do with it.

It is the dead end job of foods.

I try a bite. It really isn’t that good. In fact, I’d argue it’s bad, but I’m not in a position to complain. I came home knowing what was here. But the rain, but the broken bike, but faint hope that Tyler might be home to save me from myself, but every excuse in the book.

It’s only as I begin to shove large chunks of it down my throat while washing it down with a beer I don’t like because I bought it for someone else that I fully realize that I have only done this to myself. I could have acted differently, I could have avoided this, but I didn’t. And now I see that each of my minute decisions over the past few days, weeks, months have lead me to this place. Every time I was too lazy to stop on the grocery story, not checking ahead to find out if we had onions, entertaining the idea of eating it in the first place. It was all me.

This is my personal nightmare.

The only thing I fear more than a life that ends too early is one that extends long enough for me to know for certain that I have wasted it. I have an odd skill for deluding myself. An odd talent for accepting what is in front of me as what was always going to be.

I toss a bit of the lettuce into a pan with vague plans to fry it with something but I still continue to munch away on what cannot fit. I guess this is just where I am in life.

I finish the lettuce.

Tagged , , , , , , , , , ,

On Working and Staying Sane

It’s just past midnight and my roommate and I are rebuffing traditional seating options on opposite sides of our living room. I sit on the floor with my laptop infront of what is best titled our love seat, a removable middle section of seats from the 1990 Plymoth Voyager that dominated my childhood driving experiences, with my back resting against it. Tyler is perched on the arm of our sofa, leg outstretched, scrolling through his phone. He is chiding me for my work habits.

“You need to work less for more money”

He’s right, but he’s also not exactly one to talk. Sure he get’s dental but the cost appears to be sleepless nights working and then ridiculous naps that stretch from late afternoon to the very early morning. I’m not sure I could count the number of times I’ve presumed he was simply out, only to have him stumble bleary eyed out of his room at 1am and begin to make coffee for the night ahead. Those are my turns to chide him.

“What are you doing? Go back to sleep!”

We both understand that our concerns are falling on deaf ears, as in many ways we are cut from the same cloth. So we simply throw each other pieces of advice that we ourselves do not adhere to and move on. For as much as we speak, what is left unsaid is where the real story is.

“What would you have me do instead?”

For the past four years work has played a peculiar role in my life. I have never had a traditional 9-5 and I haven’t had weekends since my first year of university. It should be stressed that this is all by choice, this post isn’t about me complaining that I feel overworked or that I am burning out, rather it’s about what happens when the concept of a work-life balance simply makes no sense because the lines are so blurred.

I imagine this is a common phenomenon with those working on social ventures, non-profits, charities, or really anywhere that values and work overlap. When I say that I am an environmentalist first and foremost I really do mean that, I don’t have many other ways to define myself, and so I work.

I work because there is always work to be done. I work because I believe in what I am doing. I work because it is important and time is of the essence. I work because I want to.

Or at least that is what I tell myself and It’s certainly what I believe most of the time. But occasionally a second thought sneaks into my consciousness. What if I work, not because I want to or need to, but because I have to. What if I work to escape?

Work keeps me company when no one else is available. Work allows me to tune out the rest of my life’s concerns because ‘there are more important things to do’. Work doesn’t flake out or run late. Work is reliably there, just waiting to give me the momentary validation of checking something new off my to do list.

And to be honest, I don’t really know which of these options are true. What I do know is that at least for now, I am happy with my life and those in it, so what else can I do?

“Alright, I need to go to bed”

Tyler has looked up from his phone, and is now walking past me towards the bathroom to brush his teeth. I’m three-quarters through the only thing that I’ve worked on today that actually pays. It’s probably only another forty-five minutes, not too bad at all. I’ve been up since 7, so sleep should come easy tonight. Tye-dye reappears from the bathroom and passes me on his way to bed.

“Stop working and go to sleep.”

I smile.

Tagged , , , , , ,

on real communication

I want to write about communication, more specifically, the state of communication today, and everything that’s wrong with it. Yes, I hate this type of article too. At base, my point is one that I’m certain has been brought up before, and one that likely has been spoken on at length by people far more entitled to speak on such matters than myself, but perhaps this is one of those things you write more for oneself than for an audience. So, if you don’t get anything out if it, don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Our world today is dominated by communication; more people connect in more ways today than ever before. You can spend an hour online and read more opinions about a topic written by more people and more diverse set of people than would be possible for nearly anyone even a fifty years ago to do in a month. Meaning in one day, a devoted person could accumulate more direct communication with the people of this world than our grandparent’s generation could in a year. As an aside, in case you are thinking that these numbers seem awfully made up, understand that they are, entirely made up. However, I feel the point still very much stands.

We live in the communication age. Anyone who has not actively shunned modernity is bombarded with more communication than could possibly have been achieved in any previous age of human history. This is almost entirely due to the internet and to the ways that other older means of media have adapted to this rise of the web. Now that McDonalds can directly wish you a Happy Easter, with the same presence in your life that a friend would have, everything has changed.

This change has led to a plethora of good things. It has shielded old relationships that would traditionally have eroded away from the winds of time. It has given creative projects with a hard to define and dispersed niche a chance to not only see the light of day but at times shine. It has allowed for people with insight, who in the past would have been lost without a chance at the spotlight, an avenue to touch those who needed to hear what they have to say. It provides a voice to those who would have gone voiceless, or at least a speakerphone to those lost in a crowd. It is a good thing.

However, as with any change, it’s come with its own set of difficulties. With communication so abundant each person must fight for an ear. So many of us do not live our lives and communicate it when it is requested, we communicate our lives and live it when it is required. I have ______ pictures of me on Facebook. ______ pieces of proof that I have had fun, I’ve been places, done things, _______ artifacts that all point to my real, important, exciting existence. It all stems from a need to be validated; we lack the inner peace to see worth within ourselves so we derive worth from our outward personas. I’ve spoken with friends on multiple occasions about the ‘coveted non-friend Facebook like’; the moment where a friend of a friend offers validation in the form of a mouse click and attaching their seal of approval to whatever you’ve done. The ease of communication has carved out an avenue which circumvents the need for a second person. It’s the flipside of the afore mentioned speakerphone in a crowd. Yes, you can now be heard, but everyone else a speakerphone too, so while someone will hear you, you’ll still just be a part of the noise.

I should mention that this is not meant to demonize Facebook, or any of the other social media sites. Facebook is by far the most useful tool for maintaining secondary and tertiary friendships. Used well these social media platforms do more to preserve social networks than likely anything else today and I am extremely thankful for this.

The end result of all this communication, however, is that we live in a world completely saturated by it. This overload means that everyone is fighting with each other to be seen and heard. The competition has formed our world in two distinct ways, one of which to some extent follows from the other. The first, is that views are valued above all else. Views equal quality. Fifteen Facebook likes or retweets brings your communication into the eyes of hundreds, it must have value else it would not have spread so far, and because of this, you as the originator, must also have value. If you’re an organization or corporation, one million hits is quantifiable proof of quality, again the idea of validation rears its head, although this time at a commercial level where views also equal dollars. The ‘view economy’ has merged with the traditional economy, blurring the lines between friend, organization and corporation. This addition of the monetary incentive to the already communication saturated world is blood in the water. Suddenly it’s not only people you know who want to communicate with you, its television, newspapers, businesses and basically everything else.

What results is a cacophony.  We no longer must visit New York to see Times Square. We live it every day. We stand in the middle of a world which bombards us with “Look at me!”

“No, look at me!”

“Hey you! I’m important, check this out!”

But as anyone who has lived in a city will know, humans have a remarkable capacity to tune out that which they understand as ‘background noise’. Proof of this can be found whenever those of us who’ve become accustomed to city life find actual quiet and only then realize all the clamor our minds have been constantly filtering out of our day-to-day lives. Thus as these constant demands for communication begin to get filtered out, those doing the communicating must do more to be heard. As traditional news sources are met with the competition of social networks they must find ways to either distinguish themselves completely or, alternatively, immerse themselves so deeply within the social network that they are now sustained by the network itself. The “Look at me” crowds are those who’ve embraced the latter option in this dichotomy. These are the people and organizations that’ve fully accepted the idea that the reach of your communication is the value of it, disperse your message as widely as possible and that is success. Those who’ve pushed this method have almost got it down to a science; websites like Buzzfeed have nearly perfected the art of lazy link bait and have become remarkably popular in doing so. This acceptance of the view economy and preference for mass communication seems to now be the basic understanding that a vast majority of the world adheres to today.

However, I would like to take a second to give a nod to those who’ve chosen the former option. Those who’ve made the decision to rather be dictated by social media, to do what it cannot. This almost universally comes in the form of diving deeper rather than swimming a wider area. Those who swim on the surface can be seen by others, and what they see can be easily understood for those on the beach can largely see what they see, so it is easily digestible. However, those who dive deep are not only invisible for large periods of time they also resurface with experiences and explanations that are not readily understood by us on the beach, for we cannot relate to the different perspective that is gained from the underwater view. Examples of these deep-water divers can be found in all forms of modern day communication. TED talks, are an interesting example, as they were formed out of the internet age which gave rise to the cacophony of communication we live in today, but the best talks are those which do away with the idea of view bate and rather aim to provide the best platform for a currently surfaced diver to recount their experiences. Other examples of this rejection of the view economy can be found in documentaries, well researched novels, in-depth news reports, art and academia. I would even go as far as to say that honest communication through social media is an example of deep water diving, but for this to be fully understood I must first go back to Times Square.

Times Square is where a majority of us live our lives today, thousands of attempts to communicate with us from people, businesses and media. The world of view economy has two central tenants. It’s understood that if you want to get someone’s attention you must be fast, and you must be loud. In a world where communication comes so quickly you only get the spotlight for the briefest of seconds and therefore if you do not make an impact in that space of time, someone else will come along and you’re no lost.

Speed is important on two fronts, the first is that you must be as easily digestible as possible, if you don’t make it clear to me what you’re getting at before something else comes along, and I probably won’t take the time to figure it out. The second is that people crave feeling informed, so the moment something new happens, it is inherently interesting. This thing remains interesting for as long as new details emerge, given that nothing newer occurs and knocks it out of the public eye of course. Once new details of the event no longer satisfy the immediacy the public demands it loses its inherent interest factor and people move on. This has the unfortunate consequence of leaving many of us misinformed about stories where truth emerges weeks or months later because the event has lost its luster and therefore the new information does not spread nearly as far.

Volume is important to communicate that which does not, or cannot, have the value of immediacy. It does not refer directly to actual decibels, but rather how the information is presented. For example, “Scientists cure cancer” is loud; “Scientists begin stage two of animal testing trials for new skin cancer drug” is dramatically quieter. To put it another way, if you can’t be telling people breaking news about the world, you’d better tell them news that their world is breaking, or no one will listen. This quality of ‘loudness’ comes from an emotional response, the emotion itself is relatively unimportant. The goal is to get the person to feel the emotion so that they pay attention to whatever you’re communicating and then more importantly communicate what you’ve said to others. This extension of the lines of communication is the ultimate currency of the view economy. The ‘share’ feature is god.

Due to these two factors of understanding what we are bombarded with is not actually just, “Hey, look at me!” But rather:

“I had the BEST time at this concert, the BEST, my life is GREAT, like if you agree”

And

“Thousands of people just like you are DIEING, share if you care”

And perhaps most viciously,

“You’re ugly and incompetent; here are 4 ways to fix that, retweet to show you know what you’re doing more than other people”

These are the types of messages we are bombarded with on a daily basis. These are the main ways people are trying to communicate with you but it includes a fundamental flaw, which as time goes on becomes more apparent. This flaw is that increasing the volume only works if no one else is doing it, but once everyone is then the human mind just ramps up the levels which will now be tuned out and goes on about their day. This has occurred to an extent where on a daily basis we walk through a world that is figuratively and occasionally literally screaming at us that what they have to say is important and you should pay attention. But the demands for attention are so numerous and widespread no one can possibly adhere to them all, so in the end everyone finds coping mechanisms. Some find a few sources of information they trust and block out the rest, others pick specific groupings of information to be experts on, many people are simply happy to take whatever communication is most easily accessible and decide that which is not in front of them cannot be that important and then there is the simple decision to block it all out. To decide that the surface swimming sources are not nearly enough to gather any real truth about the issues and therefore they are useless and it is better to have no knowledge at all and be spared the cacophony than to immerse oneself in it and be left with a bunch of feelings but still no guarantee of actual knowledge gained.

What is most important to note here, however, is that nobody is happy with the situation. To cope is not to embrace. Everyone is thrilled by the amount of information available to them; Wikipedia is arguably a greater source of knowledge than has ever existed in human history, but everybody understands that the ways new information is being presented to them are fundamentally flawed. The constant bombardment of messages informing us that it is in our dire interest to care about them dulls their effect. What is and is not important is no longer obvious because it is in the direct interest of the communicators to make you think everything they are saying is important. We’re all standing helplessly on the beach as hundreds of people with water up to their hips are declaring that they’re drowning. Eventually we walk away, and one actually dies.

Now this wouldn’t be so much of a problem if it was simply a symptom of the current mainstream news networks. There are other sources of news, some of which do not play this game, and the benefit of all this available communication is that people can work together to find out the truth that leaks through. The problem is that this fault of for profit news is rather a problem that has existed the entire time news has existed but it has been completely blown to another level with the rise of the view economy. The reason I’ve delved into it so deeply here is because it acts as an excellent example of exactly what the problem with valuing the view above all else is, and that is fakeness.

The problem with the view economy is that a layer of fakeness pervades nearly all of it. Whether it takes the form of mock outrage over a policy decision, exaggerated explanations of danger that exists within a situation (Is your child shoving vodka loaded tampons up his anus? More at 11) or even the minute lies of our own enjoyment or displeasure with the life we are living that creep into our online personas. The bottom line, ultimately, is that everyone in the view economy is faking it.

****

My favourite time of day is 2am. This is largely because it’s the time I feel I get the most real communication. It’s a time where conversations are no longer constrained by what you need to do next, because let’s face it, you’ve already given up on a good night’s sleep, and perhaps more importantly, there is an intimacy in late night conversations. This is likely partially due to the fact that only a select few shall make it to 2am, but I feel that also there is an intimacy in knowing that your city is asleep as well. What stems from this intimacy is the central tenant of this piece, and that is honesty. Or more specifically, I believe that what is truly craved in today’s communication saturated world is honesty. Honesty and humanity.

The communication bombardment dulls us to the humanity that surrounds us. We live in an echo chamber of faked emotion and desperate pleas for attention. But again, I feel it is necessary to stress that this comes from all aspects of our lives today and cannot and should not be blamed on the social media sites that have given rise to the view economy. To shun Facebook and think you’ve escaped this cacophony is akin to asking your travelling partner to be quiet as you walk through Times Square. You’ve done nearly nothing to avoid the volume but have shut out the one person you know who’s making the noise.

What all of this leaves us with is a real communication deficit. As an aside, I should qualify that by deficit I do not mean that there is less ‘real’ communication happening now than there was in the past. I am not one to look back on history to a mythical ‘golden age’. However, it is certain that the percentage of ‘communication’ we experience today that could be considered as really human to human is dramatically lower than it probably ever has been before. And because of this, we crave it. We crave it in the same way that we crave true nature. Often unconsciously, but when the cool breeze off the lake hits your face, or you share a 2:31 moment of clarity with a friend it just feels right. As I write this, however, it’s becoming clear that ‘real communication’ is far too vague of a term to get my point across. So I will have to expand on it.

At its heart, I understand ‘real communication’ to be sharing. The fact that this term overlaps with the heart of what I have termed the ‘view economy’ is its own spot of irony as the meaning of the word sharing in each context could not be more different. I have been going over a thought in regards to this ‘real communication’ and sharing for quite some time and I think it fits here.

I believe that the general purpose of communication and human interaction is the unconscious search to share a moment. To ‘share a moment’ I mean to truly have the same experience of the same event at the same time as another person. These moments, nearly all fleeting, are often what define our lives. They are the moments we remember years and decades later and yet they are also often the most private. It’s rare to hear someone speak of a moment they truly shared with another person and yet when you describe the feeling nearly all can relate. We live our lives alone, but in these shared moments we escape our own mind for a split second and enter a collective one. It breaks the individualistic nature of our entire lives down, if only momentarily. Part of the appeal of spectacles such as concerts and sporting events is this chance to share a moment with others. This also explains why it’s more enjoyable to attend these events with someone who appreciates them as much as you do, because in the parts that are truly spectacular you are more closely sharing the moment.

To close off this slight sidetrack in regards to ‘real communication’ and moments, I would argue that it’s partially due to this search that a few close friends can be far more valuable than many dispersed ones. One of the most common regrets held by the elderly is that they did not keep in touch with old friends. That of course is not to equate old friends with close friends, but if you keep your close friends around long enough they become both. The reason I give such regard to close friends is that they provide us with the greatest opportunity for shared moments, and the reason for this is twofold. The first is the host of shared experiences that you have already lived through. I separate shared experiences from shared moments, as these experiences are simply things you both were together through, not fragments in time where each of you shared an identical state of mind. Nevertheless these shared experiences provide you with a stronger platform from which you can draw back on during moments. The second, and perhaps more important, is that you simply understand one another. This is derived not only from sharing experiences but also sharing your thoughts, feelings, and opinions. Each door you open to your own mind for someone else to walk through creates a stronger chance to share a moment. I could go on to speak about the power and value of a shared moment but I’m already so off track I’ll stop this side road here for now.

To return back to the idea of ‘real communication’ and now with the understanding that I understand ‘real communication’ as a sharing of not necessarily a moment, as that would define it too narrowly, but rather any form of sharing that leads you closer to this unconscious goal. Perhaps this thought is more easily understood if spoken of as what I do not consider real communication, which can be broken into two parts. These two parts are pointed at by the words I’ve used to describe them, ‘real’ and sharing.

First, ‘real’ emphasizes the requirement that what is being communicated is an honest representation of one’s actual thoughts or experiences. Phoniness does no one any good. It doesn’t matter how much you want to be the person who likes baseball or Radiohead, or that you are the kind of person who’s deeply interested in philosophy, you cannot fake it. Or perhaps more accurately, you can fake it, but you’re better off not doing so. Not only will it eventually become clear that you aren’t that kind of person, you will have wasted your time and whomever you are trying to convinces time because you will never share anything in regards to whatever you are faking. This phony interest usually stems from people who fail to be able to see that the value of communication stems from a sharing of your own person. Having similar interests may make conversation less sticky, but faking an interest in hopes of avoiding awkwardness is to deprive yourself of any worthwhile communication at all.

This is what makes people so wary of others who seemingly can flip a switch and be different people depending on who they are talking to. It makes you question if any of what you’ve seen is the true version of this person, and more importantly for my point, if you’ve ever engaged in real communication with them.

The second, sharing, will help close out this portion and get us back on track in regards to the underlying point of this paper. The word sharing is important in this context because although it is largely something that one person does to another; it implies an interest and complicity from the second person. The real distinction I want to make is between ‘sharing’ and ‘telling’. Telling is nothing more than self-aggrandizement, we’ve all experienced a time where we are speaking with someone and at some point it becomes completely evident that your own presence in the conversation is merely decoration. The person speaking could very easily continue unabated without you there and therefore no real communication is occurring. The problem with our communication saturated world is that nearly everybody’s telling, and that in the realm of those who’ve bought into the view economy, everybody is.

The state of perpetual telling isn’t inherently a problem. Advertisers have been ‘telling’ as a form of communication since it began. I stated earlier that in face-to-face interactions telling has become commonplace enough that everyone can remember a time it has happened to them. The only difference from now and other times is that telling is now a vast majority of all communication that we come across and this is what I was referring to earlier as the real communication deficit.

What I see in this real communication deficit is opportunity. Not opportunity for corporations or individuals mind you, as it is impossible for corporations to avoid the ‘telling’ of advertising so they might as well stick to trying to tell you something as interestingly as possible. As for individuals, the reality is that no matter how firmly I believe that the 17th picture of you at a concert must actually start to detract from your enjoyment of the show itself, it’s each individual’s prerogative to communicate however they like so I’m ignoring that as well. The opportunity is there for non-profits, charities and social innovation ventures because these are the groups that play around in the middle ground of corporations and people. Their goal is not to sell you anything but perhaps their message and then hope that perhaps you donate if you ascribe to their values. And so their message becomes a hodgepodge of news stories vaguely related to what they are doing, a few organizational updates that amount to nothing more than your friends ‘Going to swim 5k today, wish me luck!’ status update and desperate pleas for interaction.

“What are you going to do with your long weekend?”

“The WHO says you should drink 5 litres of water a day, how much water do you drink?”

The latter of these messages stems from a misguided understanding of communication, the mantra is to always try and start a conversation, but people don’t engage ‘telling’ and all three of these messages are simply examples of that. Even the third which asks a question, it gives no humanity out and therefore people will not respond with their own. A question answered without any interest in the answer is no better than no question at all.

I feel it is necessary here to briefly mention that I do not blame the state of these messages on the people actually writing them. Most modern day non-profit/charity organizations operate in a manner where the higher ups decide that the organization must be on social networking sites because that is what everybody is doing now but simultaneously put absolutely no value into it and it thereby gets dropped down to the most junior member of the staff. Which leaves these multimillion dollar organizations with their public face being controlled by unpaid or underpaid staff. What this leads to is the continuation of exactly the messages I’ve laid out above, these low level staff do not have the security to try to expand their repertoire else risk being reprimanded or worse, fired, but they also don’t have the clout to bring new ideas to the table. So they’re stuck scouring the internet for the next mildly interesting piece of news that one or two of their followers may halfheartedly ‘like’ or ‘favourite’ as a sign of support but nothing more.

Nothing ever really catches with these messages because the messages themselves have no hooks. In an earlier part of this piece I spoke of ‘deep water diving’ and at one point connected honest interaction as a form of this, and I would like to get back to that thought now. One of the central parts of deep water diving is to go somewhere those on the beach cannot, and this can be done in many ways. The more traditional way of doing this is to simply research, each new piece of knowledge you uncover from research is a below the surface truth. The more you research the deeper your dive. But there are other types of dives too and the one I’m going to centre on is honesty. Honest communication conveys humanity and humanity is what we crave in this communication saturated world.

Real humanity cannot be purveyed through the view economy, because real humanity must come from a place that is not consciously trying to be viewed. Real humanity can be shown and seen, but not told. This thought isn’t entirely new, in fact the understanding of the power of humanity has been used to such an extent that our first reaction to seeing it is often skepticism. “This person can’t simply be saying that, they must want something” is the usual thought. Yet, despite this skepticism the communication that has hooks and digs into peoples consciousness’s is that which displays humanity. Whether this communication comes in the form of a reddit post discussing one man’s experiences when his car broke down (today you, tomorrow me) or a wedding party dancing down the aisle, it is the humanity that makes it catch. The best examples of social media use are made by those who speak to no one but themselves, this is the way to best avoid ‘telling’ and to most assuredly display humanity.

This is where the opportunity lies. An organization that displays its own humanity will be able to connect with those who support it on a dramatically stronger level. To attempt this would also to flip the view economy on its head, it would require an organization to accept that maybe it won’t be seen by as many people because what it’s providing isn’t gauged to be a quick and easily digestible sound bite. Rather it would value the quality of impact over the sheer quantity of views.

The degradation of internet comment boards from high content slow to digest posts towards low content quick to digest posts as the size increases is well documented. This change drives away those who created the space that gained popularity in the first place until none remain active, thus leaving the board completely unrecognizable from what it once was. With this piece, I am arguing that it is better to get the attention of the first few hundred who started the board than the following thousands who sign on afterwards.

Humanity in communication is quality content. Deep sea diving is quality content. Create quality content and you will set yourself apart. The final step to this thought is set yourself apart and you will be noticed, but the point of this is to never work towards that last step. Focus on the last step and you’ll soon begin forgetting the first three. There are innumerable ways to display humanity, change the form of organizational updates to really show and explain the thought process within them, comb your ranks for news stories that truly touched a specific person, have them explain who they are and also why they find it important. Free your social media coordinators to really be themselves. Don’t take yourself or your organization too seriously. Ask questions you really want to have answered. Communicate like the collection of extremely devoted humans that you are. Everybody will be better for it.

Tagged , , , , , , , ,

On 2013, the year that was

Authors Warning: This post is mildly depressing and had I written it even a few hours later and especially a day or two later I think it would certainly be less so. But I am leaving it as is, partially because I still very much agree with the point of it and partially because it is an accurate representation of how I felt when I wrote it. So with that, here it is.

The title of this post is in honour of my brother, for after seeing this very title on an issue of the Toronto Star remarked that it is quite possibly, the least useful headline imaginable. Akin to titling a Sportscentre broadcast ‘The sports that happened’ or a movie review titled ‘A film that played’, but I am going to use it as a jumping off point, so you’ll have to forgive me if it seems redundant.

When the idea of collecting these year reviews for this blog came up I jumped at the chance. Most of what I write is intended to be educational, requiring research and fact checking, and the chance to stray away from that is always a welcome assignment as for me, writing is therapeutic. Writing provides me with a chance to really sit with my own thoughts and get them out in exactly the way I mean them. So, 2013, the year that was.

2013 was a year like no other.

2013 was a year that I finally took the plunge.

2013 was a year where much was lost.

2013 was a year of 2 halves, or perhaps 4 quarters.

2013 was a year which housed some of the best moments of my life.

2013 was a year when I decided that comma’s before which don’t matter.

2013 was a year that will likely do more to shape my adult life than I can currently imagine.

2013 was a year. Full stop. And that is probably how it is best remembered.

As my previous posts have alluded, 2013 was a year filled with an abundance of ambiguity. It was also likely the hardest year of my young life. This speaks more to the lucky and privileged life I have led thus far than it does of the hardship faced, but nevertheless it is the case.

And honestly, I am not sure if I learned anything from it. Or at least, I am currently not in a position to feel like I can speak authoritatively on any new insight. Who would ask a lost man for directions? I know where I am going, I know from where I’ve come, but the streets around me are anything but familiar and I’m plowing forward praying for a recognizable building or two.

But this post is getting far too gloomy for my liking, as I really am excited about 2014 and the possibilities that await, so let’s get on to the one thing I feel that 2013 did teach me (or at least gave me new appreciation for) and that is the value of a strong support network. Whether that is friends, family, a community group, or whatever, it is invaluable. What I have learned this year is that a strong support network isn’t just a thing that you can rely on when things go south (although it certainly is) but rather, and perhaps much more so, it frees us to take risks that would otherwise be impossible.

This is because sometimes life requires us to chase a moving subway, and sometimes that means running full steam into the end of platform wall. Yes that can lead to a lot of pain and perhaps even smash your entire concept of self into a million little pieces, but what matters is being able to pick yourself up and prepare yourself for that next sprint. And knowing that you have a few people that will be there to help pick up the pieces and provide a shoulder to help you work your way back towards running form is one of the most freeing realizations you can have. Because then, when the subway is leaving the station, and you know you need to run with it, you can, and better yet you are freed from worrying about the oncoming wall and instead live the glory that is running as fast as you can and hoping that maybe this time the wall will have nothing on you.  (http://www.digitaloperative.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/2012/11/koolaid.jpg)

So I leave you with this, in 2014 may you find those who free you to run and when you do, don’t slow down. (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t-vE82L3rvk)

Tagged , , , , ,

On Ambiguity

I have been thinking a lot about ambiguity lately. Not in a philosophic ‘consider the idea way’, but rather, in a staring directly at it kind of way.

4th Wall Shit: The rest of what I am going to say must come with two caveats. The first, is that regardless of what it may sound like after this point, my life is fantastic by all accounts. I have an over abundance of everything I need to live a long happy life. The second, is that while I will speak in generalities, I speak only for my own experiences. There may be others who thrive where I do not, and others still who fundamentally see the world differently, and I fully accept both. However, with that out of the way, let me get back to my point.

I’m currently job hunting. Which feels a bit more like life hunting, as what I’m looking for is my first paid gig in something that has to do with my degree. The first stepping stone as I wade out into my selected field.

I have run an environmental non-profit for nearly three years, my current job includes a variety of environmentally related tasks and I’ve been working on environmentally related projects with a U of T professor for the past year, yet this is my first step. Perhaps everything mentioned prior has given me a running start, allowing me to better reach these first rocks but in the end I’m still on the beach. This is how I’ve come to see almost all unpaid work. Each and every one of us is running back and forth on the beach hoping someone who’s already standing in the water will see us, like us, and help pull us in. This running is the ambiguity which I imagine the title of this blog refers to.

But recently, I’ve come to realize something about the nature of this uncertainty. In small doses, it’s fine, perhaps even fun. It’s the kind of ambiguity you can carry around in your pocket, or perhaps an over-the-shoulder bag if you prefer. It can be taken out, looked at, shown to others, but there’s no need to dwell on it because it doesn’t pose any real harm.  It’s kind of cute actually. Kind of makes what you’re doing feel different. Who knows what lies around the corner right? We’re living life on the edge.

But there is a thing about living on the edge, the fun comes from the sense of the edge, not the reality of it. You know you can always take a step back onto completely solid ground. The danger is not real, so it can be played with. In the past month the ambiguity in my life has outgrown my bag. In fact, it’s outgrown most of everything in my life. It has forced me to stare at it because there is nowhere else to look.

4th Wall shit: I’m about to unapologetically delve into an irritating analogy, filled with over generalizations and overly poetic and dramatic language. So if those are things you hate you probably should stop reading now.

So this is me now. I’m still standing on this edge but now I’m no longer sure where it is. You see, what I realized was that as ambiguity grows it changes its shape. There exists a tipping point where it’s no longer fun, where instead, it’s a creeping black fog, casting a shadow of insecurity and fear to the point where embracing it no longer feels feasible.  What is there to embrace? This mass is far larger than you are, you can hold parts but that does nothing to dissipate the growing blackness.

The edge that used to seem fun is now obscured, any single step could send you off it. So here you stand, staring. Paralysed by an encroaching blackness. This is where I found myself, but I’m starting to get some feeling back in my extremities. During my time staring I came to realize two things. The first is that no amount of staring will dissipate the fog. I can’t hope to simply stare the uncertainty away. To try would be to give yourself in to the blackness and rely on blind luck to find your way to the other side.

The second is that if you’re not happy with letting luck control your life, you are faced with the classic fear response. Fight or flight. To choose flight is to take your best guess at the right direction and just jump into the blackness. You’re smart and savvy, you can fend for yourself and if you land on solid ground it may just be a little less foggy there. If you fall, you can always blame the fog, dust yourself off, nurse your wounds and do your best to climb back up. It is a legitimate choice to make. And perhaps, to do so would be to actually embrace ambiguity.

But this is not my chosen path. My chosen path is to fight and the only way to fight is to grab hold of one of the few things that remain un-obscured by the fog, the things you still have control over and swing them wildly at the darkness. Use whatever you’ve got you fight it back. When understood in this manner the blackness can almost be freeing. It strips down distractions and eliminates options, forcing your hand. If you are going to get through this, its going to be on the back of what you’ve got left, so better make the most of it. Sure you may still fall off the ledge, but perhaps in fighting you’ll learn something that will make the climb back up easier, or more fruitful.

Who knows, maybe this entire analogy is bull. It certainly is dripping with privilege. The edge I speak of is nothing more than a personal feeling of failure. I’ve got a strong enough safety net that survival isn’t even on my radar.

So why write this?

My reasoning is two-fold. The first, is that writing is how I cope. Everything is more manageable after I’ve written it down. I can only think properly if I am expressing it. When done in spoken word this has gotten me into trouble, as I speak to test an idea but after it’s out there’s no delete key. Writing is different. The second, is that sometimes I just need to get angry. I need to tell myself that life is a battle and if I’m going to do something great, I better start fighting. I can harness this and turn it into something powerful. So if you will excuse me, I’ve just written a spear and I’m off to throw it at the fog.

Tagged , , , , , , , , ,

On whether or not I’m actually doing anything

I should begin with a caveat, I would imagine I am unlike most of the people writing for this blog. I have never worked or interned for an NGO. The idea of sitting and working in an office with the paid staff of an organization that serves (or at least attempts to serve) no other purpose than to better the world is completely foreign to me. I have worked alongside many, and have worked to start one, but there is certainly a part of the NGO experience that I lack.

All this is to say that I must accept that perhaps the feeling which I’m about to discuss is not shared by those who are in more established roles, but honestly, I hope it isn’t.

The thought comes every once and a while. Often during a day or two of lull between projects. And when it comes, I can’t easily shake it.

 Am I actually doing anything?

Am I just wasting my time?

Have I made any kind of difference?

 And before you think it, and I’m sure you are – as a critical mind should – no I’m not some delusional twenty-something who thinks that all my work should be rewarding or that the world owes me anything. This question doesn’t come from anger or annoyance but rather, fear. And this fear manifests itself in two distinct ways.

The first is the selfish fear that I am wasting my time professionally. That what I’m doing has no worth in the ‘real world’ because I’m living the life of a volunteer. Money is the fast track to perceived worth in our society. Sure accolades, awards and other forms of recognition can give you worth as well, but in the end, there will always be the thought, if you aren’t getting paid, how good could you be? And knowing this, the fear is always:

 If I fail,

If this doesn’t work out,

If I have wasted my past few years,

What can I do?

The second is more metaphysical (I’m sorry; I have to use my Philosophy undergrad for something). Ideally, those who enter the world of NGO’s do so with a purpose in mind. Whether it be specific, “I want to work with communities in rural India in an effort improve solar power infrastructure and access to electricity” or the generic “I want to make the world a better place”. It’s the answer to why the first fear is worth it.

But to be driven by such a purpose opens one up to a second fear, a fear far more difficult to eradicate from the corners of one’s mind. And it takes the form of the same question. “Am I actually doing anything?” “Is my fourteenth hour of copy-editing improving the lives of the impoverished? Have the last few weeks of video production put the world in a better place to fight climate change? Is anything I am doing really making a difference?”

These are the kinds of questions you ask yourself at 10:00 pm, when you know that another long night lies ahead of you, with the couch and a cold beer beckoning. I imagine that this fear is most common with those who are young and new to the NGO realm. As you stand more removed from the decision making process, the more generic and seemingly pointless your work can feel, but I’d be surprised if it ever goes away completely.

As an aside I often feel that it is this fear that leads to the more traditional (read: inferior and arguably detrimental) development projects. No one will ever agree to have their 2 week voluntourism stint revolve around data entry. You build a school and BAM! There’s a school where there wasn’t one before; that’s tangible. The logistics behind maintaining the school certainly aren’t. But that’s why all the ads tell you to buy a village a goat rather than an administrative assistant.

Getting back to the point at hand, most of us, and if you aren’t included in this us consider yourself incredibly lucky, find ourselves doing work that is at best tangibly related to our ‘purpose’. Some causes lend themselves more to ambiguity. Was all the work to get Kyoto ratified for naught? Or is just the idea of its existence at least some form of a victory? Even in organizations where the work is clear and tangible, that good can feel miles away from the underpaid intern whose job consists mostly of fawning over corporate donors and filling out spreadsheets.

And so the question comes back again.

 Am I doing Anything?

I’ve been asking myself this question for the better part of two years, and I’ve come to two conclusions. The first is that I will never truly know the answer and the second, is that I never want to stop asking it. The impact of failing to ask this question can be seen within the plentiful examples of NGO’s gone wrong, whether it’s the Susan B Komen foundation suing other Cancer charities that use the phrase “For the Cure” or World Vision dumping 100,000 NFL shirts in Zambia.

Organizational culture is a powerful thing, and without employees who ask themselves this question it can become overwhelming. “This is how it has always been done” trumps “Wouldn’t this be better?” Commitment to the organization trumps commitment to the cause. The only defense against this is to simply never stop questioning. For the second that you stop asking yourself the question is the same moment that the answer becomes, almost certainly: no.

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , ,